Treating Parents Right: Flexibility is Key in Accommodating Family Status

One of the questions that often arises in workplaces is how far an employer must go to accommodate employees who have child care responsibilities. The law is currently evolving towards a requirement that employers accommodate an employee’s basic childcare obligations to the point of undue hardship. This accommodation can often be as straightforward as flexibility on the part of the employer.

Family Status has been a prohibited ground of discrimination in Ontario since 1982, and means “the status of being in a parent and child relationship”. Discrimination on the basis of family status includes any distinction based on the status of being in a parent and child relationship. It means, fairly obviously, refusing to hire somebody because they are a parent would be illegal. Instead of directly discriminating against parents, however, workplaces may discriminate against parents more subtly: by creating rigid work schedules that make it impossible for a parent to arrange for child care, refusing reasonable requests for (unpaid) time off to deal with childcare emergencies, or temporarily transferring an employee out-of-town where child care may not be as available.

Often, the negative attitudes, stereotypes or biases are not overt, and sometimes are perhaps not even intentional. When employees become parents or take on other significant care-giving responsibilities, they may find themselves shunted on to the “parent track”, and passed over for promotions, learning opportunities, and recognition, even when they continue to work full-time and perform well. There may be an assumption that the person withfamily responsibilities is unable to take on bigger responsibilities. In other cases, the bias is much more overt. There may be comments about leaving early or not pulling one’s weight when time is taken for parental leave or to fulfill care-giving commitments

Employees with family responsibilities may also face greater systemic barriers. There may be patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the social or administrative structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate a position of relative disadvantage for people with care-giving commitments. While these systems and structures may appear neutral on the surface, they have a disproportionate effect on certain employees. An example is the practice of always scheduling client meetings at dinner when many parents with small children will have childcare commitments, as opposed to at lunch, when it may be easier for employees with young children to attend.

For a time, the law appeared to only prohibit discrimination on the basis of family status when there was serious interference with a substantial parental or other family duty or obligation. More recently, however, parents of young children have successfully advanced claims when employers fail to accommodate regular child care requirements to the point of undue hardship.

Accommodating care-giving needs is usually not burdensome or costly for employers. It is often a matter of flexibility. Flexible working hours, working from home and careful scheduling of meetings and events can go a long way to avoiding issues with regard to family status. Further, employees (even parents) are not entitled to perfect accommodation: they are entitled to accommodation they need for their actual family status situation, not to design the hours or responsibilities of the dream job they want. Child care arrangements can typically be accommodated by an employer being flexible.

I have always adopted this simple rule: would I have wanted my parents to have been treated that way when I was young?

by Chris Rootham